Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Greenwich Witch Bottle

The other day this object stopped me in my tracks. It hollered at me from its display case, and demanded that I drop everything to come over and take a closer look.



Forgive the photography. They didn’t have the lights on in the display cabinet and, even without a flash, I still got a lot of background reflection on the glass. 


At first I though it was a rather jolly-looking bottle with its pretty flower and its funny face, but then I read what it really was, and realised that it was anything but jolly. This, my friends, is a witch bottle that was created in about 1650, which, to put it in its context, is about forty years before the Salem Witch Trials got underway.




Back then, in the darker days of the seventeenth century, life was hard, superstition was rife and folk were given to blaming the supernatural whenever they suffered a mishap. Their cow stopped milking. Someone must have used an ungodly incantation to dry up her milk. Their husband seemed to have taken a fancy to the strumpet down the street. Well, there was no question: she'd fed him a love potion. Their horse threw a shoe, and went lame. It was all down to their neighbour having invoked the Evil Eye against them. And so it went on. Everyday misfortunes weren’t just a matter of rotten luck; they’d been brought on by witches and spells and black magic.


And that’s where the witch bottle came in. It was an ordinary person’s self-help remedy, a talisman, that would guard against the witch’s spells. This bottle was filled with 12 bent iron nails, 7 bent bronze pins, some nail-clippings (8 in all), some locks of dark brown hair and about 250 millilitres of human urine. The idea had been to make the bottle very personal to the person seeking its protection, who was most probably a woman, hence the use of her hair, nail clippings and urine.

The bottle was then sealed with the melted wax of a black candle and concealed somewhere, where there would be no danger of it being disturbed. Usually this would be at an entry point to the owner's house. Perhaps she’d have it plastered into the daub and wattle of the wall above the door lintel, or buried in the ground beneath the hearthstone of her fireplace (remember that because the chimney was open to the heavens, it was also a potential entry point for evil spirits).

The theory was that if a witch cast a spell it would be absorbed by the witch bottle, and reflected back at her. The bent pins and iron nails inside the bottle took the game to another level. In addition to sending all her own evil back to the witch, these would add a further torture to punish her for her sorcery. The theory was that they would cast a spell on her bladder, making it impossible, or, at the very least, excruciatingly painful, for her to urinate. By this means it was popularly believed that many an evil-doer got their comeuppance and met with an untimely end.

This particular bottle was unearthed during an excavation in Church Street, Greenwich in 2006. What was exceptional about it was that the bottle and its contents were intact, so they took them off for detailed laboratory analysis. The first thing they noticed was that the nail clippings had come from carefully manicured nails. From this it would seem to follow that the owner of the bottle was a person of sufficient social standing to have had both the leisure time and the equipment to tend to her nails. Her hair was dark, and infested with head lice, which would have been endemic across all social classes at the time, and from her urine they could tell that she had been a smoker.


An image popped into my head of a buxom brunette sitting on a high-backed wooden settle, filing her finger nails with an elegant manicuring stick, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, whilst a long, thin clay pipe smoked on a pipe-stand on the table in front of her. Occasionally she would scratch her head and look nervously out of the window, as she reached for her pipe. Inhaling deeply and then blowing long plumes of aromatic smoke into the air she would anxiously scan the horizon outside before returning the pipe to its stand and her attention, once again, to her manicure. 

What was she afraid of? Did she worry that someone would seduce her husband, or corrupt her children, or poison her livestock? Or was she newly arrived from mainland Europe, where she feared for the kinsfolk she had left behind? Perhaps they were languishing in the depths of some squalid dungeon at the Inquisitor General’s mercy. 

For a moment I glimpsed a world of fear and confusion and suspicion, in which it would have been easy to feel helpless. How very different it all seemed from our world, where we start each social exchange in the expectation that the people we meet will be benign, and minded to cooperate with us in the course of our daily grind.

For a moment I felt a surge of compassion for the frightened lady who had nothing more than a witch bottle to hold her nightmares at bay.

If you’d like to see the bottle it’s on display as part of the permanent exhibition in the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre, which you can find beside the Old Royal Naval College. 

All the best,

Bonny x

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Masque of the Red Death, Edgar Allan Poe

I may have mentioned before that I'm an enthusiastic fan of a good detective story. Like millions of people the world over I enjoy crime fiction. And I have a lot of time for Edgar Allan Poe, the man who created the genre.

Last night, as I struggled to get to sleep, I picked up his Masque of the Red Death, a short story written way back in 1848.

I was hooked from the beginning. It tells the story of Prince Prospero, who lives in a palatial abbey, whilst a terrible pestilence rages across the land.

Blood was its Avatar and its seal - the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

Of course I immediately started to think about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

Prospero, we are told, was happy and dauntless and sagacious. He weathered the storm until his dominions were half depopulated, and then he decided to take action. He summoned one thousand hale and light-hearted knights and dames from his court, and, with them, he retired to the seclusion of his castellated home.



There they shut the doors and lived out their days, neither worrying nor caring about the suffering that was taking place in the world beyond.

After five or six months Prospero decided that he would throw a masked ball for his guests. He arranged the rooms of the apartment within the castle in which the ball was to take place in a succession of colours. The first room was blue, with vivid blue light coming through the stained glass windows, the second was purple and so on until they came to the last room, which was black within, decorated with black velvet and with a blood red light coming through the stained glass windows. Not many people came into this last room, perhaps because the severity of the black and the red made them think uncomfortable thoughts of the Red Death.

At every hour a clock in this chamber would sound the time, and all the festivities would stop whilst everyone listened to its chimes. At the stroke of midnight a stranger entered the apartment dressed as though he were a victim of the Red Death. His face was like the face of a corpse. His skin was stained with blood, and he was wrapped in a garment that looked like a shroud.

Prospero was furious that anyone should have ignored his injunction to party and forget about what was happening outside. Seizing his dagger he commanded his guests to catch the intruder and hang him by the neck until he was dead as punishment for his impertinence.

They pursued the ghostly figure, who fled through the succession of rooms until he was cornered in the last room. As the people laid their hands upon him they discovered, to their horror, that there was no substance, nothing at all, behind the outer garments and the terrible mask. The intruder was the Red Death itself. As soon as they touched the nothingness of its contagious core, they were immediately infected with the disease.

Within half an hour Prospero, and all his guests, lay dead, victims of the contagion.


I don't know how Poe conjured up the notion of the Red Death. The critics have never agreed as to whether he had an actual epidemic in mind. Some thought he may have been thinking about tuberculosis, from which his wife suffered. Others thought that typhoid might have been the inspiration. Or cholera. Or the Bubonic Plague. Had he written it today I think everyone would have been certain that it was the dreaded Ebola virus that he had in mind.

Whatever the way of it, it seems to me that there's lesson to be learnt from Prospero's fate, and that we really ought to be doing everything in our power to stamp out this horrible disease and to make the medicines that exist available to people in Africa as well as the western aid workers who get infected in their midst.

If you'd like to read the story, it's well out of copyright - and then some, you can download it for free as a kindle ebook here: The Masque of the Red Death.

All the best,

Bonny x

A walk around Greenwich ...


Greenwich is a staggering place. If you come to visit London, you really ought to bend your footsteps down in that direction. There’s just sooooo much to see. Would you like to come and take a stroll around with me and Maxi-the-wonder-dog?

Royal Naval College, Greenwich
Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Travel along to the Cutty Sark DLR station, stop, disembark, and follow the signs to go take a look at the most famous tea clipper of them all: the Cutty Sark.

Cutty Sark, Greenwich
Cutty Sark, Greenwich

I have to say, at the risk of being controversial, that the new visitor centre looks a bit weird ... kind of like the ship got swept out of the river on a great big wave that's left it marooned on the roof of somebody's greenhouse. See what I mean? They've raised the old girl 3 metres off the ground so that you can walk underneath her. Aesthetically speaking, I'm not convinced that this was worth the candle. I much preferred to see her sitting at a normal elevation so that she looked like a proper ship, and you could run around on deck and feel like a sailor rather than a trapeze artist at the circus.

Cutty Sark, Greenwich
Cutty Sark, Greenwich

Still she's looking good after everything that life's thrown at her. Do you remember how she almost got burnt to a cinder back in 2007? It took them 5 years to get her sorted out after that little disaster, but I have to say hats off to them; they've done her proud.


Cutty Sark, Greenwich

She was launched on Monday, 22nd November 1869 as a tea clipper. Way back then there was race every year to get the first consignment of the new tea crop back to London. Even though I'd hate to spend months of my life cramped up in a floating tea-crate, I'm still a little bit in love with the idea of other people sailing these elegant tea clippers, their sails full of the trade winds, as they raced one another across the seas, laden with aromatic teas from the distant East.

Cutty Sark, Greenwich


Later in her career the Cutty Sark also carried wool from Australia, and in 1885 she set a record passage time of just 73 days from Sydney to London. What an epic voyage that must have been, back in the days when most folk still believed in sea monsters and mermaids.

Next stop is the Thames Foot Tunnel.

Up ahead there's a curious little building sitting on the river bank that looks like it might have been designed to star-gaze from.
Greenwich foot tunnel
Greenwich foot tunnel

Well it wasn't: that's the entry to the Greenwich foot tunnel, which will take you under the river to emerge on the Isle of Dogs, where you get the very best views of Greenwich. 

Greenwich foot tunnel

I'm not mad about the tunnel. Don't get me wrong: I think it's a marvellous thing to be able to cross the river without needing to hail a passing ship or go for a swim. It's just that I'm not mad about tunnels, especially tunnels that go under rivers with millions of gallons of water flowing past overhead. Call me weird, but that gives me a serious dose of the heebie jeebies. Maybe if I lived on the Isle of Dogs ... and kept wanting to escape across the river to wonderful Greenwich I'd get used to it.

Greenwich foot tunnel
Greenwich foot tunnel


See they've even got a dinky little matching house on the other side to come up in. 

Greenwich foot tunnel

Anyway, we swing a right on the river bank and hoof along to the old Royal Naval College, pausing at Greenwich pier to cast an eye across the river and admire the lovely boats. I should add that the last day we passed this way they were holding the Tall Ships Festival, so it was even more picturesque than normal.

Greenwich, London

Ah yes, you can keep your dank, smelly tunnels under the river: this is much more my cup of tea. The Tall Ships Festival is held every year. It makes for a great day out with lots of action on the river and lots of stuff happening on shore too. 

Greenwich, London

The Old Royal Naval College is hard to miss. Let's put it like this: it's a world-class masterpiece designed by Sir Christopher Wren when he'd got through with designing cathedrals and the like. It opens onto the river and is quite simply splendid.

Royal Naval College, Greenwich
Royal Naval College, Greenwich

I suggest we take a stroll up through the cloisters and around the enclosed courtyards. 

Royal Naval College, Greenwich
Royal Naval College, Greenwich

It has the feel of one of the better-endowed Oxbridge colleges. 


Royal Naval College, Greenwich
Royal Naval College, Greenwich

 These days it acts as the campus for the University of Greenwich. Once upon a time it was the site of  Greenwich Palace, where both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born. Sadly the old Tudor palace was demolished, bit by bit, to make way for Wren's masterpiece. It's a pity they didn't shuffle the Naval College along the river bank a bit, and let both buildings stand. Can you imagine how marvellous that would that have been?

Royal Naval College, Greenwich
Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Whilst we're here we really ought to check out the chapel and the sumptuous painted banqueting hall. This is where things can get a bit tricky as the attendants tend to object to Maxi-the-wonder-dog coming inside. So he has to be stealthily smuggled past them in an out-sized handbag. The plan usually works well ... unless and until he's overcome by one of his barky fits ... . Then we tend to get thrown out pretty quickly. The acoustics in these places make a squeaky little mini schnauzer sound like a lion. This delights Maxi-the-wonder-dog, but tends to frighten all the nice tourists upon whom everyone depends for a living, hence our speedy exit.

Royal Naval College, Greenwich
Royal Naval College, Greenwich

When we stopped by the chapel last time there was a service in progress so we weren't allowed to take photos, which was fair enough.

Royal Naval College, Greenwich
Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Now we need to walk on down to the river bank again and follow it along to our right (walking away from the Cutty Sark). Soon we'll come to a top-notch watering hole called the Trafalgar Tavern, which has been there since the year good Queen Vic ascended the throne (1837). It's got great riverfront views, lovely oak panelling and first-class tucker.

Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich
Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich

Around the back of the Trafalgar we'll find Crane Street, a little street that will lead us back to the river again; we can't walk along in front of the Trafalgar as it faces directly onto the water. 

Crane Street, Greenwich
Crane Street, Greenwich

There's something about Crane Street. It's a pretty little alleyway that seems lost in time. 

Crane Street, Greenwich
Crane Street, Greenwich

As we emerge we see the power station with the lovely little clock tower of the Trinity Hospital Almshouses nestling in its shadow.

Trinity Hospital Almshouses, Greenwich
Trinity Hospital Almshouses, Greenwich

The power station here in Greenwich used to belch out smoke as they burned coal to generate electricity. You can still see the landing jetty where the coal barges discharged their cargoes and hauled away all the tonnes of ash and cinders that were produced. Today the power station is far from obsolete. Despite being over a hundred years old it still operates as a back up power source for the London Underground. These days it burns gas and oil, which is transported by lorry.

Rubble Quay, Greenwich Power Station
Rubble Quay, Greenwich Power Station

It's quite a brutal contrast to the elegant lines of the almshouses, but we like to show you the wonderful contrasts that make this great city of ours so vibrant. 

Greenwich Power Station
Greenwich Power Station


Now we need to retrace our steps back to the Old Royal Naval College and walk along the side of the building (Park Row) and cross Romney Road, where we turn right and walk along until we see the National Maritime Museum. This is a great place in which to while away several hours, and should be borne in mind as a potential refuge if the heavens open.

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

I suggest we walk off to the side of the museum in the direction of the Queen's House, which sits proudly to the left of the museum with a commanding view directly down to the river across the pavilions of the Old Royal Naval College.

Queen's House, Greenwich
Queen's House, Greenwich

This was once the home of Ann of Denmark, wife and Queen Consort of King James I. James is reported to have given the manor of Greenwich to Ann as a making-up present when he needed to grovel and say sorry to her for having sworn at her in public. Poor old Ann apparently shot his favourite hunting dog by accident, which produced a right royal hissy fit and a bit of matrimonial strife.

Mollified by the gift, Ann commissioned Inigo Jones to design a little get-away pad, and the Queen's House was built between 1616 and 1619. 

The old Tudor palace in front was gradually pulled down to make way for the present buildings. When Sir Christopher Wren was given the brief to design the Royal Naval College Queen Mary II stipulated that he must not construct anything that would impede the view from the Queen's House looking down to the river. This is the reason why the Naval College was designed with a large break in the middle of its facade that perfectly frames the Queen's House behind. 

The colonnades to either side of the Queen's House were added in the early nineteenth century.

Today it holds a notable collection of maritime paintings, and is another first-class refuge from the weather should things turn nasty. Of especial note in this regard is its wonderful cafe, where they do very pucker afternoon teas, which are a real challenge/ total disaster for those of us trying to follow a low-carb diet.

Now we need to walk round to the back of the Queen's House and enter Greenwich Park. We should cast a glimpse across of the largest ship in a bottle that I've ever seen, which sits just behind the National Maritime Museum. Originally it was exhibited on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. It's by Yinka Shonibare MBE, and the ship inside is a replica of Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory.


Yinka Shonibare's ship in a bottle, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Yinka Shonibare's ship in a bottle, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Now we're going to head up the Avenue towards the Royal Observatory, sitting on the shoulder of Observatory Hill. As you climb the hill the view down to the river just keeps getting better and better. 


Greenwich from Observatory Hill
Greenwich from Observatory Hill 

At the top we'll find the Royal Observatory, where they've got the Greenwich Meridian marked across the forecourt. 

Royal Observatory, Greenwich
Royal Observatory, Greenwich

Have you ever wondered what that big red ball on the roof was for? Well it's the Greenwich Time Ball. It was the one of the earliest public time signals. At 12:55 every day (unless it's too windy), the ball rises half way up the pole. At 12:58 it goes all the way to the top, and <gasp> at 13:00 it falls to the bottom of the pole again so that everyone who's watching will know the time. And way back before everyone had their own clock if you weren't paying close attention to the Time Ball, and only looked up at 13:03 ... well, that was just too bad, you'd just have to wait until the following day to have your chance of knowing exactly what time it was! Personally I think it was all a bit cuckoo: what they really needed was a very loud fog horn, with its own unique note, to announce the time, but there you go, that's mad scientists for you.

Inside they have a great collection of clocks and chronometers. John Harrison's original chronometer has pride of place.

Now we turn down over the other side of Observatory Hill, walking away from the Wolfe statue and the Royal Observatory, following the signs for Queen Elizabeth's Oak, which is actually an old Chestnut tree. They believe it started out in life way back in the twelfth century. So, by the time of Queen Elizabeth I, it was a magnificent specimen. Good Queen Bess is said to have enjoyed a picnic sitting in its shade. It was also a favourite with her parents. According to local legend King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn danced round the tree in the early days of their relationship when they were still happy together and infatuated with one another. 

Queen Elizabeth's Oak Tree, Greenwich Park
Queen Elizabeth's Oak Tree, Greenwich Park

They think that the tree died in the nineteenth century, but continued to stand upright, thanks to the strength of the ivy vines growing around its trunk. Sadly a terrible storm back in 1991 brought it crashing to the ground. 

Maybe it's not much of a spectacle, but its history always thrills me and fires my imagination every time I walk past.

Now we need to keep on going and we'll come to the site of an old Romano Celtic temple. There's a great big sign, showing you how it used to look. 


I think this is the spot (photo below - flat, higher bit on the left hand side), but then again there isn't a whole lot of evidence on the ground. At least this is the spot they've sign-posted, but, as neither Maxi-the-wonder-dog nor I know a whole lot about Romano Celtic temples, it's entirely possible that we've photographed the wrong place.  In which case this is just a photo of a pretty hill in Greenwich Park where lots of people come to walk their dogs!


If we carry on walking to the park's Maze Hill gate we'll see Vanbrugh's Castle on the other side of Maze Hill Road.

Vanburgh's Castle, Greenwich Park
Vanburgh's Castle, Greenwich Park

It's a tricky place to get a decent photograph of at this time of the year as all the foliage seems to get in the way. It was originally built by John Vanburgh the architect of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard who also moonlighted in the theatre. It's definitely got a hint of the theatrical about it. 

Now we need to follow the hill down to the Naval College and the Cutty Sark, or, if we have the time and the energy, there's the Fan Museum at 12 Crooms Hill. The house in which the fans live is a beautiful building dating from 1721 and is worth taking a look at for its own merit even if you've got no great interest in the fans.

Enjoy!

All the best,

Bonny x
As shared on Friday Finds

Monday, 15 September 2014

Password Vault

Last weekend my life was transformed; something miraculous happened over here at Talk-a-Lot-Towers. 
 
In the old days - i.e. before the weekend - I used to spend hours fiddling around trying to remember my passwords. And let’s face it everything needs a password these days: Facebook, Twitter, your bank, your mobile phone account, Moonpig if you want to order a birthday card … and so the list goes on.
 
My system for password control - pre-miracle - involved a muddled collection of post-its, notebooks and arcane prompts, cunningly written in such a cryptic fashion that, when I came back to them, I could never figure out what I’d been on about in the first instance. As a result I spent a lot of my time feeling mildly bad-tempered and hopelessly locked out of my own systems. 
 
Then I’d get worn down with not using the same password for everything so that my passwords became an impossible exercise in playing with a theme and remembering what the difference was from one account to another. T-e-d-i-o-u-s. I was getting tied up in so many knots. The one person that my security was defeating was the person whom it was supposed to be protecting. 
 
Anyway, I moaned to my good friend Akie - over one of his very splendid barbecue lunches - about my problems. He listened sympathetically, as a good friend would, and then suggested I try an app called pwSafe to keep all my passwords nice and secure on my computer. 
 
And bingo! Geronimo! My life was transformed by one simple app. It’s brilliant. You just record all your passwords in the vault, and then, when you click on each separate account, it takes you right through and logs you in. Marvellous! The only password I need now is the one to get me into the password vault … which is still a challenge … duh! ... but much less of a challenge than before. 

You can find it here: pwSafe
 
So far it’s been a genius solution to all my woolly-headed password problems. Thank you Akie!
 
All the best,
 
Bonny x

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The River's Tale, (Prehistoric) by Rudyard Kipling














This weekend we're Emi's working hard on a history assignment for school. He's got to write down some interesting facts about pre-historic Britain. Then he has to illustrate his findings; his pictures must be carefully drawn with nice, neat colouring in. 

I'm wondering if we he copied out Kipling's poem and drew a few of those bat-winged lizard birds and mammoth herds, with nice, neat colouring in, whether that might tick the box.

All the best for now,


Bonny x
As shared on Imag-in-ing